Current Soccer Player, Columbia University
2017 NFL Honors Game Changer Award Recipient
2015 – Founded Utah Girls Tackle Football at age 12
Joins Under Armour in its commitment to make sports more accessible for female athletes
Watch our “Tackling Equality” webinar with Sam Gordon now.
The following is an excerpt from our recent “Media Coverage of Women’s Sports & Why It’s Important for Visibility & Growth” webinar.
When I was in fourth grade, I decided I wanted to play organized tackle football. I loved to play in neighborhood games in the back yard and during recess at school. So, when my dad told me that I could play in an actual league—with real coaches and real plays and people cheering on the sideline—I jumped at the chance.
Football is tough. The physicality, drills, conditioning, discipline and intensity are unmatched by any other sport I’ve played. When I showed up to football tryouts as a nine-year-old, it was serious business. There was an actual draft and players competed to catch the eye of the coaches and make the best teams by performing well in speed and agility drills.
My goal was to make the top team. The A team. The tryouts were serious but so was I. I had been training—doing speed and agility drills three times a week for six months to get stronger and faster. My personal trainer’s name was Rocky. And you can imagine that a trainer named Rocky would have training sessions that were no joke. They were the kind of workouts that pushed you past your limit. The kind that made kids puke or cry. You might even argue that they went too far. Let’s put it this way, those workouts were harder than anything I’ve done since. Whether it was for club soccer, club basketball or even college soccer. But no matter how tough those workouts were, I was tougher. Whatever Rocky told me to do, I did more. I wanted to be the best and I put in the work.
All that training paid off in an incredible way at tryouts. I literally had the fastest times in every single speed and agility drill going out of the one hundred and seventy-two boys in my age group. I had the fastest 40 time, the fastest 20 time, the fastest pro agility times, the fastest everything.
And when we put on the pads, I did not hold back. I was fearless.
I noticed that most of the boys were scared of contact. They would hesitate right before we hit each other. And when they hesitated, I made them pay. I hit them as hard as I could. I was the hammer, and they were the nail.
I proved at tryouts that I excelled at the two most important attributes of a football player: I was lightning fast. And I was fearless. Objectively, I deserved to make the A team.
But that’s not how the draft played out. The coaches picked eighty boys ahead of me. Eighty! Almost half the boys were picked before me. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. As a nine-year-old, I didn’t yet understand what I’ve learned in the years since. To them it didn’t matter how fast I was, how much I could help them win, or whether I was good at football. All they saw was that I was a girl. That hurt me so bad, but I didn’t have the words to explain why.
At nine, I was too young to even know what sex discrimination meant, but I wasn’t too young to know how it felt. And without a doubt, I know that if I live to be one hundred, I will never forget that feeling.
Not only was I hurt; I was angry. I decided I was going to prove to those coaches that they made a mistake. In my first game and on my first carry, I scored a touchdown. I scored five touchdowns that game on just eight carries. I thought that by making great plays on the field, I would overcome the prejudice and that the coaches, players, and parents would realize that I belonged.
Unfortunately, the better I did, the more discrimination and hatred I saw. You see, boys and coaches tried harder against me because they did not want to lose to a girl. I had a target on my back and I was easy to spot because of my long pony tail.
Opposing teams’ parents and fans would scream, “BEAT THE GIRL!” I overheard one coach tell his players that they would have to run wind sprints for every touchdown I scored. Once, when I dodged a tackle and scored a touchdown, a dad grabbed his son’s facemask in front of me and yelled at him, “You are an embarrassment! You let a girl beat you!” Another time, a coach told a player—a nine-year-old boy—to “take me out” by injuring me on the kickoff after I had scored my third touchdown of the game. The ball was kicked to the opposite side of the field. I wasn’t even part of the play and wasn’t looking when he de-cleated me.
What do you think it would feel like to be the only girl competing in an all-boys’ football league? Have you ever been the only person of your race, sex or national origin at an activity or event in which it was clear that you were not welcome, and people had no reservations telling you as much to your face? I can tell you it’s an awful feeling. It makes you want to quit and give up. All I wanted to do was play football. But many people told me I shouldn’t. That football was for boys. Even my elementary school teacher was critical. She called my father and told him she didn’t think I should play football because she thought girls who play boys’ sports would turn into lesbians.
If you think I had support from my coach and teammates, you’d be mostly right. After scoring a bunch of touchdowns in my first two games in which we won both games, the parents of some of the other boys who were running backs complained to the coach that their sons were not getting enough carries. I averaged nine yards a carry and the three other running backs averaged one yard a carry. But after their parents complained, the coach started giving us each the same number of carries. The team lost the next four straight games.
Losing is not fun and often leads to bad energy on a team. Parents start questioning the coach’s decisions. Coaches get a little edgier and are quicker to yell at a player. Players start to give less effort. Losing can trigger a downward spiral.
Our team had to win the last four games in a row to make the playoffs. My coach gathered up all the parents and asked them if they had any suggestions. My dad had been tracking the team’s stats and pulled my coach aside. He asked the coach to give me more carries and to let me run inside. The coach agreed. The next game, instead of getting six to eight carries like the past few games, I got twenty-five carries. I scored five touchdowns on over 300 yards of rushing. We won the game. The players on my team were excited and pumped. The parents were pumped. We were on cloud nine. Winning is way better than losing! Recognizing that I was the key to winning, the coach kept feeding me the ball and we won the next three games and made the playoffs.
My dad put together a highlight video of my plays that season that he uploaded to YouTube. The video had five million views in just three days. My life changed overnight. I hardly spent a night at home over the next few months while flying around the country appearing on national television shows, attending events and speaking at conferences. I attended the Super Bowl as the guest of Commissioner Goodell, I made the cover of Wheaties, I won the Cartoon Network Hall of Game Most Viral video. Abbey Wambach invited me to train with the U.S. Women’s National Team and attend a game as her personal guest. I also got to train with the 49ers and attended the first game that Colin Kaepernick started for the 49ers. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.
The most common question I was asked by the media is if I thought more girls would play football after seeing me play. I thought they would, but that didn’t happen. Many of my friends said they wanted to play football. But here’s the catch: they didn’t want to play against the boys.
All other sports offer a girls’ division. I play Division I soccer on a women’s team. My club soccer team was a girls’ team. My high school soccer team was all girls. My AAU club basketball team was a girls’ team. Sports are separated by sex at all levels: in youth sports, in high school, in college, in the Olympics and in professional leagues.
Football is the only sport that doesn’t offer female teams. Women are locked out of football, and I am going to do everything in my power to change that.
Equality in athletics can never be achieved until women have equal opportunities in football because football is the king of the sports world and the most culturally significant activity in America. The highest paid state employee in Utah, where I live, and in more than half of the other states in the United States, is a college football coach—a men’s college football coach. The multi-million-dollar salaries coaches receive pale in comparison to what universities spend on football training facilities and stadiums. Public high schools and universities funded by taxpayer money, taxes paid by both men and women, collectively invest billions of dollars in football programs.
Schools have this kind of money to spend on their head coaches because Americans love football. Eighty-two of the top 100 most-watched television events during 2021 were football games. The only other sports programs to make the top 100 were Olympic events and two college basketball games. No other sports made the top 100. No NBA games, no baseball games, no soccer games, no hockey games, no NASCAR races. No other sport made the top 100.
Like I said, football is king.
But there are virtually no opportunities for women in the world of football. There’s no question that the current lineup of sports offered to girls and women is the result of sexist stereotypes held by men. No girls were allowed to play any high school sports at all in Utah until 1972 when Title IX, a federal law that prohibits educational institutions from discriminating based on sex, became law. Only about 290,000 girls across the country played high school sports at the time. That number skyrocketed to over two million just six years after Title IX became law. The explosion in participation was not due to a sudden interest among girls to play sports, but because girls were finally given the opportunity to play.
Remember this: interest follows opportunity, not the other way around.
The dirty truth is that girls and women had no say in what sports they got to play. Girls were pushed into individual sports like gymnastics, swimming, tennis or track. And later, non-contact team sports like volleyball and soccer. And instead of baseball, girls were told they had to play softball.
Girls and women were pushed into these sports-based on two myths. First, that women are too weak to play the same sports as men. And second, that they were not interested in the same sports as men.
As a lawyer who devoted her early career to attacking laws that discriminated against women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later became the second woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, explained, “Sex, like race, has been made the basis for unjustified, or at least unproved assumptions concerning an individual’s right to perform or to contribute to society. These distinctions have a common effect. They help keep a woman in her place. A place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.”
The twin evils that prevent women’s full inclusion as citizens of this country are “interests” and “preferences.” Women are not interested in the vote. Women prefer to cook and clean. Women are not interested in serving as jurors. Women prefer to do the laundry. Women are not interested in becoming attorneys, surgeons or professors. Women prefer working as secretaries, nurses and teachers. Women are not interested in leadership. Women prefer acts of service. Women are not interested in football. Women prefer to dance.
Generalizations about women’s preferences create a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forces women to continue to assume a certain gender role. The gender roles assigned to women are chains that constrain their full participation in society. Breaking loose from those chains is no small task. So, those who believe in the advancement of women celebrate the first woman to do a thing that was traditionally a male thing. The first doctor, the first senator, the first judge, the first police officer, the first astronaut, the first news reporter, the first movie director, the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the first NLF referee, the first whatever. There are many firsts for women that are still being reported today and, unfortunately, there is still a long list of awaited firsts. Like, the first female President of the United States of America. Or the first girls’ high school-sanctioned football team.
Unfortunately, sexist stereotypes are baked right into Title IX regulations. Title IX has entrenched and perpetuated sexist stereotypes by explicitly permitting schools to offer a different lineup of sports to boys than girls based on assumptions about boys’ and girls’ respective interests and preferences.
But how do you know that girls are not interested in football or baseball when girls have never been given the opportunity to play? Interest follows opportunity. Interest in football or baseball cannot develop in a vacuum.
I was asked to speak to a middle school when I was in sixth grade. During my speech, I asked the question. It was a simple question. But one that will change the entire world of women’s sports.
I asked, “Are there any girls here who want to play football?”
Almost every girl in the audience raised her hand.
I asked that question on March 9, 2015. On March 10, 2015, we decided to start an all-girls’ tackle football league. We created a non-profit corporation, applied for tax exempt status, set up a bank account, a website, ordered equipment and jerseys, located a practice and game field, found referees and coaches, and did everything we needed for a league. Once all the infrastructure was in place, we opened registration and all fifty spots filled up in just a few days. We began play in the first girls’ football league in the country on May 2, 2015, less than two months after the middle school assembly. The league has now grown to 600 girls playing on thirty-five teams.
What did I learn from girls’ football? Girls who sign up for football want to be there. One of our first practices was a rainy, windy and cold evening. It was a downpour. My dad was worried about whether girls would quit if we kept practicing. My dad wanted to call the practice. He asked one of the other coaches what he thought. The coach said, “why don’t we ask the girls?” So, my dad gathered up all the girls and said, “Girls, it’s cold and wet. Do you want to call it or keep practicing?” And before he could get the words out, the girls all yelled enthusiastically, “keep practicing!”
I learned that football is important for girls for several additional reasons. First, football provides opportunities to girls who are not served by the current sports offerings. Football is for girls of all shapes and sizes. Many of the girls who play football aren’t built to run up and down a basketball court or soccer field, but they excel at blocking and tackling. Girls who are bullied because of their weight are valued on the football field. Football provides the first and only opportunity for many girls to play a sport. For a lot of the girls in our league, it was their first time getting their fingers sticky eating orange slices at halftime, having teammates congratulate them for a great play, and getting shakes and hamburgers with teammates after a game. Parents have told my dad that football has changed their daughters’ lives. Their self-confidence and self-esteem grew, they made friends, raised their grades and had fewer disciplinary issues.
Football also gives girls from economically disadvantaged communities a sport they can play. It’s no secret that women’s college athletics programs cater to girls from wealthy homes who can afford to pay to play club sports. If you came to one of my club soccer team games, you’d see luxury vehicles in the parking lots. It costs thousands of dollars to play club sports. If you came to my football games, you’d see minivans and pickup trucks. The youth football leagues charge only a couple hundred dollars to play.
The only reason there is racial parity in college athletics for men is because of football. Football has massive rosters and scholarships, and half of those massive roster spots go to black men. Without women’s football, black women are significantly underrepresented in college athletics. A study by the Women’s Sports Foundation reported that 90% of women of color who play college sports participate in just two sports: basketball and track and field. Let’s face it, there is so much more racial and economic diversity on a football field than on a tennis court or on the golf course.
Participating in football will also help girls and women develop an understanding of football that allows them an equal opportunity to compete for jobs in sports industries as broadcasters, scouts, referees, coaches or athletic directors. Many of the girls who played in our league now serve as referees for high school football and many of them have returned to help coach other girls.
Offering women’s football will also elevate women’s status on school campuses. I was invited to hang out with the USC women’s soccer team when I was nine. The team took me on a tour of their incredible facilities. The football facilities at these universities are mind-blowing. One of the places the women wanted to see was the lounge. They told one of the coaches that I was with them and that they wanted to show me the lounge. The coach opened the doors to the lounge and the women were able to see the massive televisions, video games, pool tables, ping pong tables, couches and tables available for the football players. It was pretty incredible. One of the women turned to me and said, “Thanks, Sam. We’ve never been allowed into the lounge and we really wanted to check it out. We’ve finally been able to see it and it’s all because of you.”
That experience hit me differently. I didn’t think it was special simply to see the awesome facilities provided to the men. I thought it was wrong that female athletes at USC were prohibited from using the facilities. How can you say that women have equality on school campuses when female athletes don’t play the sport in which universities have invested billions of dollars in facilities, stadiums and other resources?
As a final point about why women’s football is important, football would give women the best chance to gain spectator and community support and to shed their second-class status on campuses. Some people say that women’s sports only exist because of funding from men’s football. That women should not complain about inequities in their sports programs because they’re receiving a handout from men. But the game is rigged.
Men have handicapped women’s ability to generate revenue by forcing women to play sports that hold little interest for spectators. Of course, women’s sports do not generate as much revenue and media attention as men’s sports when women are prohibited from fielding teams in the most popular sport in this country.
People will watch women’s football. The NFL invited two high school All Star teams from our girls’ football league to play an exhibition match during halftime of the NFL Pro Bowl game. We played in front of 54,000 fans. Those fans cheered louder for us than they did for the pros. Fans will tune in to watch their school’s women’s football teams compete against their rivals. I promise you that more people will tune in for a women’s football game between Notre Dame and Auburn than will tune in to watch a women’s soccer match involving the same two schools.
I see women’s football as an untapped opportunity for women and their schools. But my school still sees it as a boys’ sport and is unwilling to offer girls football teams. When do girls and women get a say in what sports are offered? Why are our voices still silenced or ignored?
I tried to make the case with my school that they should offer girls’ football. Nothing I could say made a difference. One administrator said he would rather shut down the boys’ football teams than let girls play football.
My reaction was the same as when I was passed over by coaches when I was nine. I was hurt. And then I got mad and filed a lawsuit.
My attorneys argued that schools violate the constitution by offering a different lineup of sports to boys, which includes football, than the lineup of sports offered to girls, which does not include football. Under our Title IX claim, the judge granted partial judgment against the schools because they provide forty percent more participation opportunities to boys than girls and that they have failed to expand opportunities to girls; they had not added a new girls sport in nearly thirty years.
We went to trial on whether the schools had to offer girls’ football. Title IX says they must if we can prove two things: interest and competition. To prove interest, we pointed to the 500+ girls who played tackle football in our girls’ league. They dismissed our league as a fad.
Deep into our lawsuit, the schools were so certain that girls were not interested in playing tackle football they did the one thing that Title IX says they were already supposed to do regularly; they conducted a survey of girls’ interests. They gave girls a list of over thirty sports, including the sports that the schools already offered, and asked girls to mark those sports that girls had an interest in playing. Then, the girls were asked to rank their top three choices.
The survey results showed that more than 1,500 girls would rank girls’ tackle football as one of the top three sports they are interested in playing. To put that in perspective, more girls said they are interested in playing tackle football than most sports already offered by the schools, including cross country, golf, lacrosse, swimming, tennis and track and field. And that interest exists even though none of the schools offered girls’ football teams.
The judge agreed that girls were interested in football and in sufficient numbers to field teams at each of the nineteen high schools in the three districts we sued. But the judge said it was impossible for us to prove an ability to have competition because none of the schools offer girls’ football teams. Meaning, under the judge’s interpretation, we cannot force a school to add a new sport unless other schools in the area already offer girls teams in that sport. We obviously disagree.
We also sued under the Constitution. Justice Ginsburg authored a landmark opinion in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that governments cannot rely on sexist stereotypes about girls’ interests and preferences to deny them opportunities. We argued that schools had to offer the same lineup of sports to boys and girls because there was no way to justify offering different sports to boys and girls without relying on sexist stereotypes. The judge ruled that boys’ football is really co-ed football because girls can technically play on the boys’ teams. The schools offer twenty-three teams that are offered to either boys or girls and one co-ed team, and that is football. And when they say it is a co-ed team, 99.98% of participants are boys.
We were unsatisfied with the decision, so we appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal. We intend to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary.
I am willing to go the distance for girls and women to be able to play tackle football on equal terms as boys and men. Tackle football is the last frontier in women’s sports. The road to equality is uphill and filled with obstacles, and sometimes it feels exhausting. I will admit that sometimes I get discouraged. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is against me. When times get tough, my dad reminds me that we aren’t trying to change people’s minds. We are trying to identify and gain support from like-minded people who share our belief that girls and women should be treated fairly and equally.
And that’s what I’ve found with Under Armour. The partnership with Under Armour is as important to me from a psychological standpoint as it is from a practical standpoint. Knowing that an industry-leading company in the sports world is willing to stand by my side and let the world know that they support me and are willing to help girls and women achieve equality validates everything I’ve done to date in this space. From a practical standpoint, with Under Armour’s support, we can reduce costs to players and provide better quality equipment. One of the most exciting things that Under Armour has done for us is secure access to play our girls’ football championship game at the University of Utah’s Rice Eccles Stadium, the same venue used for the boys’ high school championship games. Under Armour is helping the girls in our league feel as valued as the boys. Together, with Under Armour, we will lead the charge in the most important movement in women’s sports. Utah will be the birthplace of girls’ high school football.
Watch our “Tackling Equality” webinar now.